Cover of Rules of the Road by Spencer Headworth
Rules of the Road
The Automobile and the Transformation of American Criminal Justice
Spencer Headworth


August 2023
304 pages.
from $30.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503630413
Paperback ISBN: 9781503636187
Ebook ISBN: 9781503636194

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A thorough and engaging look at an unexpected driver of changes in the American criminal justice system

Driving is an unavoidable part of life in the United States. Even those who don't drive much likely know someone who does. More than just a simple method of getting from point A to point B, however, driving has been a significant influence on the United States' culture, economy, politics – and its criminal justice system. Rules of the Road tracks the history of the car alongside the history of crime and criminal justice in the United States, demonstrating how the quick and numerous developments in criminal law corresponded to the steadily rising prominence, and now established supremacy, of the automobile.

Spencer Headworth brings together research from sociology, psychology, criminology, political science, legal studies, and histories of technology and law in illustrating legal responses to changing technological and social circumstances. Rules of the Road opens by exploring the early 20th-century beginnings of the relationship between criminal law and automobility, before moving to the direct impact of the automobile on prosecutorial and criminal justice practices in the latter half of the 20th century. Finally, Headworth looks to recent debates and issues in modern-day criminal justice to consider what this might presage for the future.

Using a seemingly mundane aspect of daily life as its investigative lens, this creative, imaginative, and thoroughly researched book provides a fresh perspective on the transformations of the U.S. criminal justice system.

About the author

Spencer Headworth is Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University. He is the author of Policing Welfare: Punitive Adversarialism in Public Assistance, which received honorable mention for the Herbert Jacob Book Prize.

"Rules of the Road provides a comprehensive, and necessary, account of the automobile's inextricable connection to the U.S. criminal legal system. It also challenges us to reimagine that relationship and our society's car dependence. This book is an essential read for anyone who cares about transforming policing, criminal laws, and American justice."

—Sarah Seo, Columbia Law School

"This deeply researched book elegantly lays out how cars and roads reflect broader social and legal choices about belonging, governance, punishment, and surveillance. After reading Rules of the Road, you will see the automobile everywhere and at every stage in the criminal legal system – even though it's always been hiding in plain sight."

—Sarah Lageson, Rutgers University-Newark

"Drawing on a wide array of secondary literature, the book's provocative discussion of the automobile's pervasive and profound impacts on the United States will likely appeal to readers interested in any of the interconnected issues of crime and punishment, individual independence, equality of opportunity, mobility, public health and spaces, the environment, and social justice."

—Thomas J. Davis, Library Journal

"Through all the legal changes brought about by automobility, judicial bodies have repeatedly made landmark decisions that affect a high proportion of citizens. From the beginning to the end of his study, Headworth consistently situates his detailed coverage within the larger historical context in a clear and pleasant fashion. Recommended."

—H. R. Grant, CHOICE